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Conflicts overshadow complex issues

Church based Culture Wars are a triumph of ideology over reason and charity

  • Father Mike Kelly SJ, Bangkok
  • Thailand
  • November 14, 2011
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In the 20 years since the Cold War ended, the ideological battles between Right and Left have been transformed into what – off and on – have been called the Culture Wars of the succeeding era.

Simple accounts of the rights and wrongs of complex issues are served by ideological elites who appoint themselves as the arbiters of all that is good, true and beautiful, simplistically contrasting their views with those of identified enemies.

One Culture War raging in the US between the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street Movement is basically over the mess the US economy has got into. The Tea Party blames big government and reckless spending. The other side blames the banks and their satellites (stock brokers, hedge fund managers, etc.)

Neither side actually proposes a constructive way out of the mess. And each proposes agendas that may well deepen the mess.

It’s just like the days of the Cold War where neither side could do more than offer [the] MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). But then as now they were determined to fight on.

The Culture Wars in politics and economics have bred their clones – in universities, art galleries, journals and news organizations (think of Rupert Murdoch), even in sports clubs. But where the battlefield has become plainly evident is the Catholic Church.

Human beings seem most content when they can name an enemy and cluster together to destroy it. That’s what happens in wars and this instinct is alive and well in the Church. A cursory view of online chat and commentary sites of Catholic publications will lead any observer to one of two conclusions:

This is a hopelessly divided Church where commentators violate the second rule of Christianity – love your neighbor, including your enemies; or

The Church’s publications, in providing these comment/chat sites, are offering an out-patients’ department for a psychiatric institution.

The Catholic Church has always been full of varied cultures and throughout history has renewed itself (or failed to) by being a large house for a big family. Cultures – national, ethnic, theological, pious – make the Church something greater than sum of its parts. Often these have been associated with or sponsored by particular religious congregations or outstanding individuals. Sometimes they have been intensely ideological movements whose effect has been to divide the Church. But mostly that hasn’t been so.

And for most Catholics, the universality of the Church is part of their consciousness only at a very high level of abstraction. For most, their belonging to the Church is quite local – the parish, some friends, a religious congregation, a Church movement, a tradition of piety. It’s personal and the narrative of personal faith is tied to quite identifiable people, places and experiences.

The Church either lives at this level or it doesn’t live at all. The comment of a priest friend is that Catholics “look around. They don’t look up.”

This why I find the aggressive posture, superior tone and at times abusive utterances of those conducting Church based Culture Wars, including clerics at all levels, simply boring and a waste of time. Whether it’s about liturgy, theology, the so called secret but actually well known criteria for selecting bishops (orthodoxy in faith with little attention to aptitude or competence for leadership), moral issues, ministry and gender inclusion, divorce and remarriage, and so on, the outcome always seem to be the same.

I’m not suggesting these aren’t important questions that need attention for the sake of the mission and identity of the Church. But engagement on these immediately draws us into an ideological vortex where name calling and labeling, the questioning of a person’s Catholicity and even their faith become the subject of discussion, overshadowing the original topic.

It is the triumph of ideology over reason and charity. It’s merely a Church version of the Culture Wars in the wider society. And that contest is about power, something that is very real in our world and our Church but should be used, most of all in the Church, to foster human flourishing and service to those in need.
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